Okay, so this isn’t about liveries. But we reckon it’s the sort of thing that still just about falls under our purview.
In 1979, the BBC gained exclusive rights to shonw Formula One in the UK for the first time, following a patchy previous three decades in which races were occasionally shown either in full or as highlights on various channels, but mostly as an afterthought or addition to an existing sports programme rather than being seen as a live event in their own right (with a few notable exceptions, such as the infamous 1976 Japanese Grand Prix).
But when the Beeb began opening their new dedicated F1 show Grand Prix (actually usually a segment of the wider Grandstand programme) with the instrumental break from Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 track “The Chain”, it set into motion a new trend for inventive and exciting F1 title sequences on British television, one that continues (albeit after a few ups and downs) to this day. Here’s how the F1 title sequence has evolved over the last thirty-five years.
The original 1979 BBC intro is fairly basic, and serves as an atmospheric build-up to the race, as it consists almost entirely of footage of drivers and engineers preparing for the start, rather than much in the way of actual on-track footage to get the pulses racing. Only at the end do we see a bit of actual racing. It’s topped off with a rather nifty and swooshy GRAND PRIX logo.
By the end of the same season, however, a slightly altered sequence had come in, with a wider variety of footage used – but again, very little actual racing. After the montage, a POV-shot of a car on track leads to the GRAND PRIX logo (this time a lot simpler, font-wise) rolling up onto the screen. This style of intro would persist, albeit with variations in the actual footage used, through to 1980 as well.
These 1981 Spanish GP titles are a somewhat lacklustre affair, with the racing “action” shown being so slow that you wonder why they bothered to include it at all. Incidentally, it’s worth noting that at this stage, the titles include the tail end of the previous guitar bit of the song, rather than coming straight in with the famous bass line. This would vary in subsequent years.
There’s no track action at all in the 1982 titles: instead we go straight from the establishing stationary shots to a few quick cuts of cars slowly rolling out of the pits, but that’s all. What is added, however, is a lovely (if incredibly dated, now) new computer graphic for the main title, looking for all the world like it was programmed on one of those new-fangled BBC Micros.
Finally, some actual action in the 1983 sequence! A selection of crashes and then, rather enjoyably, the Piquet-Salazar punch-up from the 1982 German GP – and all of it actually cut together in a way that fits with the music. Unfortunately, the logo at the end – a simple, boring red typeface – is dreadful.
For 1984, the Beeb introduced something new entirely, with a style of intro that they’d return to again in several years following. A Tyrrell driver (probably Martin Brundle, though we never see his face) suits up ready to drive, while his car is magically constructed piece by piece. As he drives away, the spangly new Grand Prix logo is painted onto the tarmac behind him, before we finally cut to the standard montage of mostly-inconsequential footage.
The “things magically appearing” theme extends to a Grand Prix-branded garage (and a car that’s also now bespoke BBC, rather than a Tyrrell) in 1985. After this sequence, we cut away straight to some racing action (rather than anything set in and around the pits or start line), but it’s only a brief clip, because then we’re straight into footage that’s specific to the race in question – in this particular case, a helicopter flying over Brands Hatch.
What starts off initially seeming quite dull – a bland checkerboard pattern forming around a brief shot of the Beeb’s own track car – turns into probably the best sequence yet in 1986, thanks to some well-chosen, fast-paced shots of cars actually racing.
The 1987 titles are a slightly disappointing return to the previous style – a bit of bespoke footage of a generic car being prepared, before a mixture of track action and drivers in the pits. Points for including the Mansell tyre burst from Adelaide ’86, though, a staple of any decent F1 montage from the mid 1980s onwards. And there’s a jazzy new version of the logo, though it’s an evolution rather than a revolution.
The Mansell blowout is gone from the 1988 intro, which otherwise uses the same basic format, albeit with a couple of extra shots of Derek Warwick in his generic car at the beginning, and all-new footage for the montage part.
Things changed completely for 1989, however, with the much-loved “painting” intro. The titles begin with a blank canvas, onto which painted detail is gradually added until we get the image of the BBC F1 car. Then it’s a cut to a quick montage, which is enjoyable enough, though it’s not really cut in time with the music.
That intro only lasted a year, however, as the 1990 sequence introduced a few elements that have become recurring standards in the years since. Once again, the sequence is split into two halves: the “build-up” and the “action”, but for the first time they’re actually timed properly with the music, so that when the tune really kicks in, so too does the racing action. The first half of the video sees Ayrton Senna (or, more likely, someone dressed like him) moodily gearing up in his McLaren in a garage (complete with BBC Grand Prix logo on the steering wheel), and the switch into “action” mode is signified with green starting lights, a nice touch. At the end of the sequence, the music abruptly stops, to be replaced with engine noise and yet another new logo.
The same basic sequence would be used in 1991, although with an unusual juddering effect on the race footage that frankly doesn’t work.
Annoyingly, I can’t find video online of the 1992 sequence – so if anyone can find a copy of that to help me out, please let me know and I’ll add it in!
But we jump instead to 1993, where the “garage” sequence now featured Damon Hill (and the actual Damon Hill, this time), with a bit more focus on the driver – this time, he’s shown both before and after a brief footage montage that’s mostly concerned with crashes. The logo has also had a shiny, 3D-ified overhaul.
Damon’s Williams – without the driver in it, this time – was again the focus of the 1994 sequence, which seems perhaps a shade unfortunate given what happened to his team-mate Ayrton Senna that year. This, however, was the most stylized F1 intro yet, with the footage overlaid onto the body of a plain black F1 car that’s then revealed to be the Williams. And then there’s a new logo at the end, to boot. Interestingly, the 1995 sequence was exactly the same, even down to still using the 1994 car!
Things were changed for 1996, although frankly it might have been better if they hadn’t been. This is an incredibly lacklustre sequence, bringing back the “POV” track perspective of later 1979 and superimposing a single rolling tyre that eventually unfurls to become the logo. Meanwhile, snatches of F1 footage randomly appear in bubbles over the animation. This would be the BBC’s last sequence for a little over a decade, and probably among their least memorable.
So in 1997, change was afoot. ITV had gained exclusive rights to F1 coverage, and with it came an entirely new approach to intro sequences – not least because they were now showing the sport (both races and qualifying) as its own dedicated programme, rather than simply as part of Grandstand. And despite some fans’ protestations, “The Chain” was gone, too – seen as too inextricably linked with the BBC’s coverage. Instead, the band Jamiroquai were hired to write a new theme tune – although any hopes ITV might have had of creating something equally iconic were dashed as soon as the new music was heard.
ITV’s first sequence was certainly distinctive and different; but while it’s stylish, it fails pretty comprehensively as an F1 intro, because the conscious decision not to include any actual footage of real cars racing means it completely lacks a sense of speed and excitement. Sure, the black car rolling out of the garage looks cool, but it doesn’t exactly look fast.
That first sequence lasted for three years, in what would become a common lifespan for ITV’s intros. So in 2000 it was time for a new one – and with Jamiroquai’s music having failed to make anything like the hoped-for impact, in came a pre-existing Apollo 440 track.
Hurling lights and imagery at the viewer, it’s pretty garish, but at least in terms of action it’s the polar opposite of the previous one. While not especially brilliant, it’s almost certainly the best sequence of the ITV era.
As the customary three-year period expired, so it was time for another new sequence at the start of 2003. This one makes a pretty good choice of music, with a remix of Bachman Turner Overdrive’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” – a track that feels quite appropriate for F1. But the graphics are bland, so much so that it’s hard to distinguish the titles from an accompanying sponsor bumper.
Still, the 2003 sequence was a masterpiece compared to the Moby-soundtracked one that ITV brought in for the last three years of their tenure. Never mind James Allen: if anything signified that it was high time the rights were wrenched away from the channel, it was this thing. I think the effect they were going for was “James Bond credits”, but if that’s the case, it’s definitely less Sean Connery Cool, and more Roger Moore Uncomfortable Undertones Of Racism And Sexism.
Hooray, then, for the BBC regaining the rights in 2009, and the near-instantaneous announcement that they’d be bringing back “The Chain”. Unfortunately, when they did so, for their first season it was used to soundtrack another pretty uninspiring intro:
The classy, ominous-voiceover preamble is cool, and would continue to be so for several years afterwards (although somewhat cooler when voiced by Idris Elba than when by Eddie Jordan). But the main sequence is a huge disappointment. When you’ve got five decades’ worth of actual footage of actual F1 cars looking awesome, what’s the point in giving us a sequence of a load of badly-rendered fake ones racing around a street track that bears no relation to reality? Did we step into an early-2000s computer game by mistake?
That intro lasted for three seasons: but at the end of 2011 change was afoot again as far as the UK’s broadcasting rights went. For the first time since 2002 and the ill-fated F1 Digital+ experiment (a subscription-only service on Sky giving UK viewers access for the first time to Bernie’s all-singing all-dancing “World Feed”, an option taken up by only around 9,000 or so customers before its cancellation at the end of the season), the rights would be split between two companies, with Sky getting exclusive rights to some of the races. To usher in this new era, the BBC brought in a new title sequence:
Archive footage made a welcome return, but once again rather than being full screen, it appeared in stylised windows dotted about. These windows were made up of chequered flag-style cubes that bounced around in time with “The Chain”, from a computer generated plain black car that brought back memories of the “generic BBC cars” of the 1980s. It’s definitely an improvement on the previous sequence, but it’s still not especially fantastic.
For their big bow into the world of F1, meanwhile, Sky took inspiration from none other than… the BBC. You see, the Beeb had ended their coverage of the excellent 2010 season with this rather gorgeous closing montage, featuring the song “Just Drive” by Alistair Griffin (a little-known 2004 single that, with an F1-inspired re-release, made it into the top 40):
When joining the sport in 2012, Sky’s higher-ups decided they liked this song (and, more pertinently, the impact of its use on the BBC’s coverage) so much that they wanted to use it as their opening titles music. So they did:
What really makes the Sky 2012 sequence work so well, though, is that it’s by far the most extensive set of archive footage ever used in an F1 title sequence up to this point. Opening and closing with the eyes of reigning champion Vettel (the final shot is quite reminiscent of Damon Hill in the 1993 BBC sequence), it then does a quickfire run through the evolution of the sport from the 1950s to the 2010s, before showing a bunch of lovely shots of drivers celebrating. It’s a hugely enjoyable, massively inspiring sequence.
It’s so good, in fact, that it was undoubtedly an inspiration on the BBC’s 2013 effort. “Anything you can do,” the Beeb evidently thought, “we can do better. Because we can put Fleetwood Mac over it.” And so they did:
The 2013 BBC intro is a masterpiece, and in my opinion the finest F1 title sequence there’s ever been. The music is matched perfectly with scenes of drivers old and new getting in and revving up their cars, before the “kick in” moment sees an explosion of action. It perfectly gets across the history and drama of F1, with a succession of classic and instantly iconic moments, and finally a photo roll call of every previous champion.
There’s an extra element to the 2013 sequence, too, which was controversial to some viewers, but which I quite like: when all those classic televised moments (Hill and Schumacher at Adelaide, Mansell’s tyre blowing, Spa ’98, etc.) are shown, there’s extra footage cut in, computer-generated shots that show an imagined closer view. They’re a bit artificial-looking, but I think they’re a nice extra touch.
Sky kept the same opening for the 2013 season, but – apparently mindful of the similarity between their “archive footage” sequence and the BBC’s, switched for 2014 to one that instead reflected their own coverage:
So all of the footage used was from the preceding season, and was mixed in with clips that emphasised Sky’s commentary team, and presentation tools such as the SkyPad and other replays and graphics. As something that says “Here’s what our coverage of F1 is all about”, it’s pretty good (and in that sense, it’s appropriate for an audience of pre-existing F1 fans who will have subscribed to the channel, rather than trying to draw in casual viewers), but it’s hard to argue it’s in any way the equal of the one before it.
For their part, the BBC kept their 2013 sequence going into 2014 – but both broadcasters have given us tweaked versions of what they already had for the current season. First up, the BBC have kept the same basic format, but changed a few of the clips:
There are fewer clips this time around, and each one is shown for longer as a result. It’s a shame to lose Hill/Schumacher and the Mansell blowout, but I really like the additions of the Senna/Prost crash and Senna/Mansell going wheel-to-wheel. The best thing about the new sequence is the additional shot at the end, showing Lewis Hamilton signing his autograph on the camera before dissolving it into the same signature on the drivers’ championship trophy. It’s not quite as nice an ending as the previous titles’ roll of honour, but as the first time the trophy’s ever been shown in an intro like that, it’s good to see something different.
The most interesting element of Sky’s 2015 sequence, meanwhile, is another one they’ve nicked from the BBC: yes, they’ve got additional CGI shots!
Well, one of them, anyway: it’s used during the “Nico hit me!” moment from the 2014 Belgian GP, and it does look pretty cool; it’s just strange to see them deploying the same effect as the BBC in that way.
Still, it’s good that in 2015 we’ve got two genuinely great F1 title sequences: both openings show a clear love for the history, romance and drama of the sport, and effectively convey that to the incoming viewer. When you consider how poor ITV were at doing that throughout their twelve years in charge, and how even the BBC sometimes failed to do it in the years before then, you have to give top marks to both broadcasters for giving us something properly inspiring. Hopefully they’ll keep doing so.